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Denver, Colorado Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session at a Briefing on the Panama Canal Treaties.

October 22, 1977

THE PRESIDENT. I know that you've already had an excellent briefing from Ambassador Sol Linowitz and from my own national security adviser, from the Secretary of Defense and from our representative, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, about one of the most controversial and, perhaps, one of the most important issues that our country has to face, and that is the Panama Canal Treaty---or treaties.

I'd like to take a few minutes to talk to you from the perspective of the Presidency of our great country and from the perspective of the Commander in Chief of our Armed Forces.

President Eisenhower, President Kennedy, President Johnson, President Nixon, President Ford, and myself have all seen a need to modify or amend the present treaty with Panama concerning the Panama Canal. The negotiations have been taking place for 14 years, and the treaty that we have evolved, after tough, now completely publicized negotiations, are very good for our country, for our defense, our Nation's security, our Nation's prosperity brought about by trade, the political alliance or friendship that must exist between ourselves and our neighbors in this hemisphere, and from the spirit, I believe, of the rest of the world that our country is large and strong and fair.

It would be a serious mistake for anyone to assume that the Panama Canal Treaty is not important. It would also be a very serious mistake for anyone to assume that the Panama Canal is not important. It is important. It has been important to our country for the last 75 years; it will be important to our country for the next 75 years.

It would be a mistake for anyone to say that our country couldn't defend it if it were attacked by insurgents, by terrorists, or by well-meaning patriots of Panama in opposition to the stance of the Panama Government.

We could defend the Panama Canal, and if it is attacked by any means, I will defend it, and our country will be able to defend the canal.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff have said, in a concerted effort even by nongovernmental forces against the wishes of the Panama Government, it might take 100,000 or 200,000 troops to defend the canal. But it can be done, and it will be done.

I believe that it's best not to face this prospect, not to take an action that would bring about an attack on the Panama Canal. We can do this with these treaties by forming a continuing partnership with Panama to help us keep the canal well operated, well maintained, open for our use, at the same time guaranteeing it to our country, which the treaties do, the absolute right to defend the canal as we see fit for the rest of this century.

The Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Secretary of Defense, the Secretary of State, and the President of our country has a right to choose, within the zone itself, the lands and waters necessary to be occupied by our own forces to keep the canal open.

We also have the right under the treaties, confirmed by a recent joint statement between myself and General Torrijos, after the year 2000, to take what action we see fit as a nation to defend the canal, to keep it open, and to keep it available for our ships.

During the rest of this century and after the year 2000, we have the right of what is called expeditious passage. In time of emergency or in time of need, as judged by us, our ships have a right to go through the canal as quickly as possible and also, when needed, to move to the head of the line if our Nation's security is at stake or if I or my successors in the White House think there is a need.

This is a common agreement between us and Panama. There is no doubt about it. And these two basic questions--do we have a right to defend the canal; do we have a right for our ships to have priority in using the canal--have been seriously distorted in the past, now clarified by precise English and Spanish language between myself and the leader of Panama.

I might say also that the Panamanian negotiators and General Torrijos have acted in good faith. Throughout the last 14 years there have been no threats, no implied statements that if you don't approve the treaty, the Panama Canal might be damaged. They have never done this. Although Panama does not have a democratic government like our own, General Torrijos has gone a second mile in making sure that not only he as a leader approve the treaties, along with his own chosen Cabinet, but the Panamanian people had a right, in an unprecedented expression of democratic principles, to vote in an open and free referendum or plebiscite that will take place, as a matter of fact, tomorrow.

He's invited the United Nations to come in and witness the procedures that are being used.

So, not only does General Torrijos and I--do we approve the canal treaties but the Panamanian people will vote in a referendum, and as you well know, the United States Senate, under our own Constitution, must approve the treaties themselves.

I'd like to add one other thing. We are not taking any taxpayers' money to pay the Panamanians. There will be a sharing of income from the canal use fees. The second thing is we have never owned the Panama Canal Zone. We've never had title to it. We've never had sovereignty over it. There's always been recognized by Theodore Roosevelt originally, the Supreme Court has confirmed since then that this is Panamanian territory. People born in the Panama Canal Zone are not American citizens. We've always paid them an annual fee, since the first year of the Panama Canal Treaty that presently exists, for the use of their property.

This canal will also be operated jointly by us. There will be the rest of this century a nine-person board that will set the policy for and manage the canal itself. Five of those members will be American citizens. Four of them will be Panamanians. All nine of them will be appointed by the United States.

So, you can clearly see that in economic matters, defense matters, priority of use, fair action on the part of the Panamanians, that our country comes out very well in this Panama Canal treaty arrangement.

Now, the original treaty that presently exists--I don't condemn my predecessors for having signed it. The fact is that no Panamanian has ever signed it. Before it was signed in 1903, no Panamanian ever saw it. But I'm proud of the fact that our Nation was strong enough and able enough, no matter what the circumstances were about the arrangements with Panama--I'm proud that we had the will and the technical ability to build a canal, because it's been better for our country and it's also been better for Panama. It's been better for all the other maritime nations of the world. So, in balance, in every aspect of measuring the treaty terms, our Nation comes out very well in the negotiations.

The Panamanians wanted very high monetary payments; they did not get them. Panama wanted immediate transfer to them of operating rights of the canal; they did not get them. Panama wanted an immediate withdrawal of our Armed Forces; they did not get them. But I think they've negotiated in good faith, and our country has come out very well.

Assuming, which I think is completely accurate, that we have a good equal deal in the Panama Canal treaties, we also have tremendous advantages with other countries. Under Franklin Roosevelt, under John Kennedy, under Lyndon Johnson, there were massive efforts made by the President and the Congress to strengthen the ties of friendship and trade and common purpose between ourselves and our neighbors to the south.

To some degree, to some variable degree, these efforts were successful. But almost invariably their success depended upon financial payments or financial loans or monetary aid. It was kind of like a big brother giving handouts to smaller nations to the south to buy their friendship.

During the week that we signed the Panama Canal treaties in the ceremonies in Washington, I met with 19 leaders of countries to the south of us. There was a new spirit of friendship and cooperation and equality and partnership. There was no mention of this new feeling being based on economics. So, symbolically, the fair treatment of Panama, the end of what they look upon as colonialism by the United States will be a tremendous boon to us.

Almost without exception, the business leaders of our country approve the Panama Canal treaties. They are outspoken in their support because they know that trade and jobs and exchange and exports of our agricultural products and so forth are heavily dependent upon this good will that ought to exist between ourselves and other nations of the hemisphere.

President Ford has endorsed the treaties. Secretary Kissinger has endorsed the treaties. Secretary William Rogers has endorsed the treaties. Secretary Dean Rusk has endorsed the treaties. Former Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird has endorsed the treaties. All five members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff have endorsed and support strongly the treaties as being in the best interest of our Nation's defense.

There is almost unanimity among those who are responsible for our foreign affairs, our trade, and the Nation's defense to support the treaties. With all these advantages for it--and these statements are absolutely accurate--what is the political problem?

There's an emotional feeling about the Panama Canal. And there is a lot of distortion about the significance of the Panama Canal. People say we bought it; it's ours; we ought not to give it away. We've never bought it. It's not been ours. We are not giving it away. There is no semblance between the status of, say, the Panama Canal Zone and Texas or Alaska that were bought and paid for and over which we've always had sovereignty. There's no similarity at all.

What we're doing is continuing a partnership that has existed for a long time between ourselves and Panama. They will continue to have sovereignty over the canal. But we will continue to guarantee that the canal is open. And we have the absolute right, in this century and later, to defend the canal against any attack from Panamanian terrorists or from other countries. We have the right for our ships to use it.

So, I believe that when the American people know the facts about these treaties, that you will give us your support. It's very important that this be done.

I think, had the canal negotiations not begun 14 years ago, we might very well withstand, for a time being, no action. But there's been a tremendous expectation built up in Panama because of the negotiations that have taken place now under four Presidents. And the treaties have been signed with a great deal of ceremony. And they feel that we are treating them fairly. They feel that in the past we have not treated them fairly. And now to have the treaties rejected, I think, might very well arouse in them a feeling of resentment and deep animosity.

The last point I want to make is this: One reason that there is such a feeling about Panama is that we withdrew from Vietnam after we had committed major efforts of our country in that war, and that our country was almost universally condemned by the rest of the world for our investment of military effort in Vietnam. Most of the people of our country felt at the initial stages, and maybe even later on, that we should have been in Vietnam as we were in South Korea to defend democracy and freedom and let people have the right to choose their own government.

But I think you'll remember there was a slight difference. When we went into South Korea, we did not have the condemnation of the rest of the world because we went in with a legitimate position. The United Nations voted, the Security Council, that South Korea should be defended. And we went in as part of the United Nations forces--the strongest force of all, of course, legally.

We went into Vietnam with the same good intentions and with the same commitment of forces, but we were looked on as being an illegal entity in South Vietnam.

With the passing of these two treaties, if we later have to go into Panama--and I don't believe we will but if we should later have to go into Panama, it will be with the endorsement of the Panamanian Government, the Panamanian people. It will be with the endorsement of 30 or 40 or 50 other nations who will sign the neutrality treaty going into effect after the year 2000, saying, we think that the treaty with Panama and the United States is a good one. We support it and we endorse the principle of either the United States or Panama having the right--not just the right but the duty--to defend the canal against any attack and to keep it open.

So, it gives us a legitimacy and an endorsement of the rest of the world to do what we want in the first place to keep the canal open, well managed, and to meet the security needs, the trade needs of our own country.

So, in every aspect of controversy, there's a good and responsible and truthful answer. But the distortions and the incorrect information that has been put out about these treaties is very, very damaging to the truth.

I'm very proud to have a chance to come here, and I think for the few minutes we have remaining I'd like to answer any questions that you might have on the treaties themselves. I've tried to cover as quickly as I could some of the questions that I thought you might ask in the future.


Q. Mr. President, Roger McDaniel from Wyoming. I'd like to ask that with the reasonable assumption that tomorrow's plebiscite in Panama will show the anticipated overwhelming support for the enactment of the treaty, what kind of a timetable do you see as necessary for the ratification by the United States Senate?

THE PRESIDENT. I think there's a general feeling in Washington, I think, the rest of the Nation, that the most important single thing that the Congress can address this year is a comprehensive energy policy. And following that, I think the Congress will be ready to turn its attention to the ratification of the Panama Canal Treaty. I was hoping we could do it this year. But the obstacles that have been placed in the way of rapid Senate consideration of the energy package, I think, has delayed it.

I have talked privately with Senator Robert Byrd, the majority leader, and his response is, "Whenever you get an assured vote of 67 votes in the Senate, why, I'll be willing to call it up." [Laughter] And that's why I need your help. I'm not asking you in particular to call your U.S. Senator and say please support the treaty. But I do hope that when you go back home, if you are convinced that the treaties are in the best interest of our country that you will let your own voice be heard.

It takes a great deal of courage on the part of a U.S. Senator to vote for the canal treaties if he has any doubts whatsoever if the people in his home State are overwhelmingly opposed to the treaties based upon incorrect information.

I think you've had a very good opportunity this afternoon to learn the facts about the treaties. And I hope that you will exhibit not only a knowledge of the treaties themselves when you go back home but some political courage and make speeches to the Lions Clubs or Rotary Clubs or Jaycees or be interviewed by your own local television or radio stations or your local editorial board and let your own voice be heard and say this is a difficult and unpopular political question, but our country will be well-served by these treaties.

So, I think that the vote in the Senate might very well come early next year. I think there's been a great deal of alleviation of previous concern about the treaties with the recent exchange of clarifying language between myself and the Panamanian leaders.

Q. Mr. President, I was in favor of the treaty before I came, so, you know, I haven't changed my mind.


Q. But most people in Utah aren't in favor of the treaty, I believe. What specifically-somehow, if I could say respectfully without walking around this question-would be your position in case the Senate doesn't ratify the treaty?

THE PRESIDENT. I would be reluctant to bring the treaties to the Senate for action unless I was reasonably sure the Senate would vote affirmatively, because I am afraid that even with the best-meaning intentions among the Panamanian governmental leaders, that a rejection of the treaty might have very serious consequences in our relationship with Panama-the ability to keep the canal open without armed conflict--and also would damage severely our relationship with countries in the southern part of this hemisphere.

So, my expectation is to try to secure enough votes in the Senate before I actually ask the Senate to vote on the subject. Yes, would you have a followup question ?

Q. I don't know how to ask the President of the United States, but--

THE PRESIDENT. You're welcome.

Q.--what if you don't get the votes?

THE PRESIDENT. I think we've got a good chance to get them. But if I don't see that we're going to get the votes, then my own inclination would be to delay submission of the treaties for a vote.

Q. And would that create havoc for Panama?

THE PRESIDENT. It would create a very difficult condition which we might very well use as time for me to let the Senators know how serious the question is. When the Senate does adjourn this year, a group of them, the leaders, many of whom oppose the treaties at this point, will go to Panama on their own initiative to see what the circumstances are there and to see the advantages of ratification and the very serious disadvantages that might come with rejection.

So, I believe that time and education and knowledge about the treaties will lead to increasing support in the Senate. So, I have confidence that the Senate will ratify when the vote does come.

Q. Mr. President, as another supporter of the Panama treaties, I want to ask you a question that's asked of me often. Isn't the ratification--the potential ratification of the Panama Canal treaties a symbolic step in what people Perceive as the continuing process of withdrawal of the United States from the world, such as we've. seen in Vietnam, Korea, and in other places in the world? People talk about withdrawing troops involved in NATO. It's more of a symbolic question than it is a pragmatic question.

THE PRESIDENT. Yes, I think that's part of the emotional commitment to the canal, because we were, as a nation, embarrassed in Vietnam. I think there's a sense that we've got to show our strength and show our ability to stand firm no matter what the challenges to us might be.

I look on the ratification of the Panama Canal treaties as a show of strength and as a show of national will and as a show of fairness and as a show of confidence in ourselves now and in the future to act if necessary, but not to have to show that we are strong just because we can run over a little country.

It's much better for us to show our strength and our ability by not being a bully and by saying to Panama, let's work in harmony, let's form a partnership. If the canal is challenged either by insurgents or terrorists from your own country or by outside forces we'll be there to work with you to defend the canal, but not to throw down a gauntlet and tell Panama, we dare you to do anything about the canal because we're strong enough to defeat any forces that you might put forward.

We don't have to show our strength as a nation by running over a small nation because we're stronger than they are. So, I don't see the treaties as a withdrawal. We are retaining permanent rights to defend the Panama Canal. We will operate it with a dominant position the rest of this century, and after the year 2000, and this century, of course, we'll have a complete right for our ships to use the Panama Canal on a priority basis in time of either need or emergency.

So, I don't believe we're giving up anything by showing that we can work in harmony with a small nation. We can suffer tremendously in our reputation among the small nations of the world not just in Latin America but throughout the world if we continue to try to run over Panama just because we're strong militarily.

I don't think anybody thinks that Panama is stronger than we are militarily, and I don't think we have to prove it by trying to push them around. I think they've been very fair in the negotiation period, which has lasted 14 years. They've been very patient. And their original, very extreme demands, which they thought were legitimate, have not been accepted by us, and I think General Torrijos has acted fairly with me. He's very concerned about the Senate action. He's gone out of his way to make it possible for the Senate to vote for the treaties.

And, of course, we've tried to help him as well. I think there'll be a new sense of partnership and commitment based on the strength of our country, not weakness, in the Panama Canal Treaty effort.

Q. Thank you. Mr. President, I'm Betty Orten from Colorado. I support the Panama treaty, and I thank you for the briefing. And I ask you, sir, please to consider the opinions of Colorado and the West regarding water. [Laughter]

THE PRESIDENT. I might say that that's been ever present on my mind ever since I got off the plane here. [Laughter] And for the benefit of Coloradans and also Georgians, I'm determined to keep the Panama Canal full of water and to keep our ships moving through it. [Laughter]

Q. Mr. President, firstly, I'd like to be able to tell my children that I chatted with the President. [Laughter] Norm Johnson from Salt Lake City. I understand that the board which governs the Panama Canal will change makeup after a period of time, and at some point--


Q. That is not true?

THE PRESIDENT. No. Let me explain it to you.

The board will always consist of nine people for the rest of this century--five Americans, four Panamanians. The four Panamanians will come from a list submitted to us by Panama that the United States chooses and approves. The chairman of the board will be an American for the first part of the treaty. The administrator, the executive officer, who can only carry out the board's policy, will be an American up through 1990 and for the last 10 years of this century will be a Panamanian. But that person will not set policy. He'll only carry out the policy of the board itself dominated by Americans.

And, of course, one of the things that that board will do, which is very important, is to set fees for the use of the canal to decide which projects will take priority in repair or expansion of the canal. So, we'll keep complete control of that board for the rest of the century.

Q. At some point are we in jeopardy of coming under economic duress? In other words, we talked about 30 cents, at the time, I believe, in terms of tonnage price. Is there some point in history under the terms of the treaties wherein--or whoever is running the canal could raise that to $10, $20, whatever would make it fiscally impossible, or--

THE PRESIDENT. Yes. That's always a possibility, that the board of directors would go wild and set a transit fee that would be extraordinarily high. If so, the ships just wouldn't use the canal. Some might even go around the southern coast of South America. Others might choose to off load on the east or west coast or the gulf coast and let rail shipment replace transit shipment. But I think that even if the use of the canal doesn't increase in the future, that the fees will be much less, for instance, than they are with the Suez Canal, and with any increase in the use of the canal, it's almost inevitable, in my opinion, as we start shipping more and more oil and natural gas from Alaska, down around the coast, through the canal up to the gulf coast, that as you increase the volume of shipment through the canal, then the fees per ton will go down.

Q. Mr. President, my name is Greg Olin, and I'm from Salt Lake City. I was wondering if I could have a comment on the current furor over disregard of the constitutional provision--and I'll have to read this--


Q.---found in Article IV, Section 3, Clause 2, which says, "The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful rules and regulations respecting the territory or other property belonging to the United States," my question being, I think you're being accused by some people of having circumvented the House.

THE PRESIDENT. I understand.

Q. The second question that I had for you is, you'd mentioned that you'd like to keep the canal full. I guess the rumor that you were going to adhere to EPA standards, drain it, put your dirt back into it-[ inaudible]--[laughter].

THE PRESIDENT. That's all right. We'll keep the canal open and work it. We've got legal rulings on the constitutionality of my signing the treaties and the Senate advising and consenting toward the ratification of the treaties. I might say that the House of Representatives will be involved in the process. For instance, a very crucial element of the treaties themselves will be the establishment of the nine-person board to which I just referred. Now the Panama Canal Corporation is a private nongovernmental entity. After the canal treaties are ratified, then that will be replaced by a government agency which will consist of this nine-person board, and the House and Senate will have to approve the establishment of that board. So, that's one of the necessary parts of the completion of the treaty process. So, the House will have an adequate chance to participate in that. Historically in our country, the President and the Senate, ratifying a treaty, has been able to take action as we are taking now.

Q. Mr. President, I am Sue Joshel from Denver. You told us that a number of Congressmen who are now against the treaty will eventually go over to Panama. And you are pretty sure that they will come back and have their minds changed. What will it be--what will they hear and see which will change their minds?

THE PRESIDENT. Well, you know, I can't really predict the details, and it may be presumptuous of me to think that the Senators who go down there will all come back convinced that the treaties will be advantageous. I can't say that for sure. But my own experience so far has been that as people in a position of responsibility, like you all and the other public leaders, have studied the treaties and understand the provisions and the advantages to our country in carrying out the treaties, they've become convinced that it was good.

I've seen a shift among Senators who give me their private commitments toward approval for the treaties themselves. One thing that has always been a consideration is how do the American citizens who live in the zone have their rights guaranteed.

Whenever we've discussed that point with the negotiators, we have had representatives of the citizens there in the meetings themselves and also labor leaders who in the past have opposed the treaties. But we have guaranteed the right in the treaties themselves for American citizens to have their jobs protected, to have promotion rights, to have all their retirement benefits protected.

So, that was one of the major obstacles in the past that did exist to the treaties being ratified. And now the UAW, the AFL-CIO, and others who represent those American workers in the canal for the first time have endorsed the treaties.

Maybe one more question. We've just about run out of time.

Q. My name is Abbott Sekaquaptewa, Mr. President. I'm the chairman of the Hopi Indian Tribal Council from Arizona.


Q. This afternoon we have heard many things, and as I understand it, one of the goals of the treaty is to channel our relations to a more positive atmosphere, not only in the Western Hemisphere but in the larger world community, in the process to give a better status and self-respect and better opportunities to the Panamanians in the process.


Q. Now, based on your support for these treaties I would like to know, my people would like to know, I'm sure, does this then set a policy for your administration and the administration of internal decisions made for the Indian people of this country with the same high goals as these two treaties seem to aspire to?

THE PRESIDENT. The answer is yes, it does. Thank you, sir.

I see you represent the American Legion?

Q. Yes, sir.

THE PRESIDENT. I'm a Legionnaire myself. I want to have your question.

Q. Mr. President, I'd just like to make a few comments here. I'm Harry Taylor, State commander of the Republic of New Mexico American Legion. I have the pleasure, of course, to address you now, Mr. President, and explain the position of the American Legion in regard to the Panama Canal, the Canal Zone.

As you are aware, the American Legion held our national convention here in Denver on August 19 to the 26th.

THE PRESIDENT. Yes, I heard about that. [Laughter]

Q. And the delegates at that time unanimously endorsed Resolution 445 concerning the rejection of the treaty to turn the Canal Zone back to the Panamanians.

We have been warned of this over a long time and by many of the former high military naval personnel of our Government that if this would happen and it would result in the greatest economic, geographical, and sovereignty loss that our country as a republic has endured in the last 200 years.

The American Legion will not stand still or wait for this to happen. We intend and we will use our influence to inform the United States Senate and the American people to reject this treaty, and with the help of God and the wisdom of the American people, we will succeed, because we dare to care about the future of America and the American people.

Thank you.

THE PRESIDENT. Thank you very much, sir. I understand how the American Legion felt back in those days, and perhaps you haven't changed your mind. Certainly, you haven't.

I think there has been some clarification, as I said a little earlier, about the two most important questions that were raised at your convention. One was a claim that our country did not have the right to defend the canal the rest of this century and into the next century. I believe that to the best of my ability that particular question has been answered.

And the other major question that was raised then and since by the American Legionnaires has been that we didn't have the right to use the canal in a time of emergency ahead of other ships in order to defend our country. I think that to the best of my ability that has also now been answered.

Very great military leaders, including our own Joint Chiefs of Staff, have endorsed the canal. In the last week, for instance, Admiral Zumwalt, who was a very forceful and very strong naval leader, has endorsed the canal itself. The Chief of Naval Operations of the Navy now strongly endorses the canal. Former commanding officer of our forces in South Korea, Matthew Ridgway, this past week came out, endorsed the canal. Melvin Laird, former Secretary of Defense under the Republican administration, has endorsed the canal, and others who are deeply concerned about the defense of our Nation.

As a fellow Legionnaire, though, I know that there is a very strong and forceful desire on the part of Legionnaires to express your opinion openly and aggressively, and I'm very glad to have you do that this afternoon, sir.

Thank you very much, everybody.

Note: The President spoke at 3:55 p.m. in the Silver Room at the Denver Hilton Hotel. The briefing was attended by approximately 150 citizens from the States of Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Utah, and Wyoming.

Jimmy Carter, Denver, Colorado Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session at a Briefing on the Panama Canal Treaties. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/242282

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